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Photo: Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir Du coton prêt à être récolté

Magdaline Boutros à Namangan

13 janvier 2024

  • Asie

In the autumn heat of late September, around fifteen women with bent backs collect by hand the small balls of cotton that have just hatched in a field on the outskirts of Namangan, in eastern Uzbekistan . Across the aisles, their voices mingle with laughter while their bodies, completely covered to protect themselves from the sun, oscillate from one plant to another.

“Yes, I remember having to pick cotton when I was a child, but it’s not the same conditions today,” assures the one who acts as their supervisor in the field, Mansur Azizov, 58 years old. Like millions of Uzbek children, this man with a face browned by the sun was forced in his youth to collect what we call white gold here. A fiber grown on more than a million hectares, which had been established as a monoculture under the Soviet regime.

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This text is published via our Perspectives section.

And every fall, until recently, its silky filaments were gathered thanks to the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of civil servants and schoolchildren who were sent to the fields.

“We no longer had school, there were no more weddings. Everything was stopped for several weeks until the harvest was finished,” recalls Mansur, his eyes shining. Even after the fall of the USSR, this practice continued. It was only following an international campaign to boycott Uzbek cotton, which began in 2011 and was joined by more than 330 international brands and retailers, that forced labor in the fields was eradicated. A report published in 2022 by the International Labor Organization confirmed the end of this practice.

“I am grateful to our president [Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who introduced a series of reforms after coming to power in 2016] for creating the conditions for us to be paid for our work,” continues the cotton picker . The task is difficult, he agrees, “but all work requires effort”! Despite the beating sun and his hands scratched by brambles, Mansur says he manages to harvest around 100 kilos of cotton per day. “Women harvest more, 150 to 200 kilos per day. They are younger and faster. I’m old,” he slips, mockingly.

In pictures

Uzbek cotton in the eye of Valérian Mazataud

As the day progresses, the sling bags hanging from the shoulders of the pickers fill with white balls, which are then transferred to larger bags or tarps left at the end of the aisles, which are periodically hoisted onto a trailer. “It’s a collective effort. We are happy to participate in the harvest… it is our national wealth,” says Mansur, referring to the status of the sixth largest cotton producer in the world held by Uzbekistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia governed by an authoritarian regime.

A culture that thirsts

A few kilometers away, producers at the Botirjon Isayev farm had not yet started harvesting. “We look at the hulls of the plants. When 80% of them have hatched, we start the collection,” explains Isroil Kyrgyzbayev, who manages the cultivation of 55 hectares of cotton and 55 hectares of wheat.

Uzbek cotton, white gold or curse of the nation?

Photo: Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir Workers harvest cotton fibers in a field near the town of Namangan, Uzbekistan.

In a few days, around a hundred pickers will be called in as reinforcements. “We expect to be able to pick it all up in two weeks. We pick the cotton by hand to maintain the quality of the fiber and reduce losses,” he explains.

In fields that stretch as far as the eye can see, thousands of stems dot the earth cracked by drought. “Growing cotton requires a lot of water. We irrigate until August,” says the producer. With irrigation also comes the spreading of insecticides and fertilizers. “We repeat this process three times until the end of the summer. » A triumvirate which allowed the farm to increase its yield, increasing it from 2.5 tonnes of cotton per hectare in 2007 to 5 tonnes per hectare today. “We have become one of the largest producers in the district. »

Here as elsewhere, cotton cultivation requires water. When the USSR decided, in the 1960s, to make Central Asia its breadbasket, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, tributaries of the Aral Sea, were diverted to irrigate the steppes of the Uzbekistan and transform them into lands suitable for cotton and wheat. The Aral Sea, the fourth largest lake in the world, located between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has started to dry up. In just a few decades, nearly 90% of its volume has disappeared, creating an ecological disaster. Restoration projects are now trying to revitalize this immense body of water.

Transforming raw materials

Once the trucks are filled with cotton, the shipments leave the Botirjon Isayev farm and head towards clusters, these groupings created in recent years to transform cotton directly into Uzbekistan. “Before, we exported the raw material to the USSR [where it was transformed], says Isroil Kyrgyzbayev. But for several years [thanks to the reforms introduced by President Mirziyoyev], cotton has been processed here, producing textiles and yarn. »

Uzbek cotton, white gold or curse of the nation?

Photo: Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir A stage in the processing of cotton to make textile products.

When the system of clusterstook off a few years ago, the company ArtSoft Cluster Holding has also expanded, becoming the largest cluster in the province of Namangan, a region located in the Ferghana Valley. “Our company includes three clusters. Our facilities cover 18.5 hectares,” proudly underlines Bakhtiyor Badalov, the production manager, as he shows us around.

On the site, immense buildings at the cutting edge of technology follow one another. Beneath the thunderous noise of the machinery, spools of thread are dyed at breakneck speed. Further on, rolls of fabric are stacked on top of each other before being transported to machines where the fabrics will be transformed into dragon-patterned napkins. In front, an automated laboratory produces colors for dyes.

“Our equipment comes from France, Germany, Italy, India,” explains Bakhtiyor Badalov. We manufacture 3,000 tonnes of various textile products annually, mainly towels, knitwear, t-shirts and dressing gowns. We export these to Central Asian countries, Russia, Ukraine, and we are starting to export to Europe and China. »

Last year, exports from ArtSoft Cluster Holding, which employs 7,000 workers, reached €30 million (just under CA$45 million). Domestically, the country exported US$3.2 billion (C$4.3 billion) worth of textile products in 2022, representing 16.5% of its total exports. This amount was only US$1.6 billion (CA$2.15 billion) in 2016, when President Mirziyoyev came to power.

“Our president has done a lot for the development of domestic textile production,” Bakhtiyor Badalov emphasizes enthusiastically, citing in particular tax reductions for the import of equipment and the possibility of obtaining loans at advantageous rates. “We want to use all these possibilities to further increase our production. »

Imposed culture, fixed price

Economist Yuliy Yusupov, director of the Center for Economic Development, located in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is also delighted with the recent developments in the cotton industry, which allows the country to add value. “Exports of raw cotton have almost entirely ceased, and we process almost all cotton domestically. »

Despite everything, he has reservations about the current system. Even though the planned economy regime was abolished at the time of the fall of the USSR, the government continues to impose cotton cultivation on farmers. And the price of the material is still set by the central power. “What has changed is that farmers no longer sell cotton to the government at a fixed price, but they sell it to clusters at fixed prices. »

Uzbek cotton, white gold or curse of the nation?

Photo: Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir Workers package fabrics at a factory in the ArtSoft Cluster Holding agro-industrial cluster in Namagan.

Despite President Mirziyoyev's reforms, the market is not completely free, he believes, which creates perverse effects. “First of all, farmers are not able to optimize their business by choosing what they want to grow and what is most profitable. Second, their interest in increasing their production volume is low due to fixed prices. »And finally, intensive cotton cultivation reduces soil fertility, which forces farmers to use more fertilizer.

In addition, the Uzbek system of allocating land to farmers – who rent land rather than buying it – opens the door to corruption, mentions Yuliy Yusupov. “Local authorities can play with land, taking it away from some farmers and giving it to others. »

For the economist, cotton should therefore not be called “white gold” in Uzbekistan, but rather “curse of the nation”. But for picker Mansur Azizov, it is indeed a source of pride, passed down from generation to generation. “Here, we take care of cotton in the fields like we take care of our children. »

With Askar Djumano

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116